ONE LONG MONDAY afternoon, my attention was wandering, as it so often did, in Mrs. Davidson’s algebra class when I noticed a tiny bit of white paper sticking out from beneath the tin pencil tray attached to the top of my desk. There was just enough of it for me to pin down with a fingernail and pull it back, and when I finally got it all the way out—and there was more to it than I expected—I found I had removed a long, narrow, flattened paper tube—a drinking straw wrapper. Words in blocky print were written on it in pencil: Rita Raven, Second Period. Who are you? I turned the straw wrapper over and wrote Kirby Lewis, Fifth Period, and slid it back under the tray, leaving only a bit of corner showing. Thus began our clandestine and epistolary courtship, spelled out in brief, urgent phrases on delicate scrolls, our words written over what was stamped on each and every wrapper in pale pink: Sweetheart.
Hi Kirby, Do you like math?
What’s your favorite subject?
You don’t write much for someone who likes English
I have writer’s block
Ha, ha. I have something for you. What’s your locker number?
I hesitated—it was getting awfully real, but curiosity got the better of me, and I wrote my locker number down on the wrapper and slid it back under the pencil holder. It wasn’t easy this time—the tissue-like paper wanted to stick to my damp fingers.
Monday morning, I found a square of stiff paper in my locker that had been cut just the right size to fit through the ventilation slots. It was a colorful drawing in map pencils of a flower and a bumblebee having a tea party. The flower was an anthropomorphized thistle with a spiky, purple hairdo and big green eyes with long black lashes. The thistle was holding a cup of tea in a green leafy mitt of a hand. The bumblebee was much less human looking, although on the bottom two of its six feet, it was wearing a pair of black, high-top sneakers. On the bottom left corner of the drawing were the initials R.R. On the other side of the card, at the top, Rita had written her locker number and the words please write something.
That evening I sat on my bed in my room, looking at the drawing and trying to come up with something to write. My little brother was already in bed in his pajamas. He was not his usual boisterous and obnoxious self. He wasn’t feeling very good, and he’d stayed home from school.
He sat up and gave a sad little squeak of a cough—a mouse that would soon learn to roar. He asked me what I was looking at.
Out of pity, I showed him Rita’s drawing. When he reached for it, I pulled it back—not to be unkind—you just never knew where his fingers had been.
“Look, but don’t touch,” I said.
He sat on his hands as a gesture of good faith, and I held the drawing close enough for him to get a good look.
“That’s cool,” he said. “Did you draw that?”
“A girl drew it for me.”
“Why is the bumblebee wearing a mask?”
I looked at the drawing. It did look like the bumblebee was wearing a mask. I think Rita was trying to capture the natural black and yellow markings of a bumblebee and hadn’t quite gotten it, but intentional or not, I liked the effect—the bumblebee looked like a fat little winged Lone Ranger. I had found inspiration. Smaller than my thumb, I thought, yet ready to take on all comers. I wrote a couplet in my head:
The bumblebee, though not so very large
Is industrious and daring, and ready to take charge
It was a good start—but in what sense was a bumblebee daring? The bumblebees in our backyard floated noisily from dandelion to dandelion, and that was about it. What was daring about sticking your head . . . oh! He is the dandelion tamer. . .
Not bad. Not bad at all. One or two more flower-related challenges and I’d be on the home stretch. This wasn’t going to be hard at all:
He is the dandelion tamer,
The bluebell tower climber,
Now we knew who he was—but what was he doing at a tea party with a thistle? Probably just relaxing after completing the Herculean tasks I had given him. The words just poured out of me:
But when his work is done—his time his own,
His wings will take him where his thoughts have flown.
He’ll fly away to spend a happy hour
In the company of his favorite purple flower.
I wrote it all down on the back of the drawing. I intended to leave it in Rita’s locker as she had left it in mine, but when I got to her locker Monday morning, there were two girls standing in front of it. One of them was Emily Knob. I knew Emily because she sat next to me in Mrs. Clark’s English class, and we were in fierce competition for first chair teacher’s pet. The other one—the one with the big head enveloped in corkscrew curls—I had seen her in the halls, but I didn’t know her.
“Look Rita,” Emily said “that’s him. I told you he would.”
Rita turned and looked at me. Behind saucer-sized glasses with shiny red frames, her green eyes suggested curiosity and amusement. I gave her the card and walked away fast, certain I’d made a huge mistake.
There was a straw-wrapper note waiting for me in Mrs. Davidson’s algebra class, and I was some time in working up the courage to look at it.
Can you meet me after school, on the front steps?
So I did. It was a windy afternoon, and her hair was blowing around. Those twisty tendrils looked like they were searching for something to latch on to.
“I liked your poem,” she said.
“I liked your drawing,” I said.
“God,” she said, “I think that was the hard part.”
I didn’t know what she meant, but I didn’t want to seem dim-witted, so I didn’t ask.
“I’m going this way,” she said, indicating with a turn of her head a direction that was not my way home. “Which way are you going?”
It was about a fifteen minute walk from Nilson Middle School to Rita Raven’s house, but it seemed to me we covered the distance in two or three giant steps, as if we were wearing the legendary seven league boots.
“Thanks for walking me home,” she said.
“I like walking,” I said. It was true, though I had never realized it before. What rotten luck for her to live so close to the school. Next time, I would walk slower, take smaller steps, and stop to exam bugs on the sidewalk. I might even acquire a limp.
The door to Rita’s house opened, and a boy bounded down the front steps and trotted up to us. He must have been a foot taller than me. He was wearing a plain white t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. He had muscles. He took me in with the same look of curiosity and amusement in his green eyes as I had seen in Rita’s when I first met her at her locker.
“Hey, Rita,” he said, “who’s the fat kid?”
“Daniel! Be nice. This is my friend, Kirby.”
Daniel held out his hand, and I took it. He squeezed my hand very, very, hard.
“So you’re Kirby. Hey, you want me to get you a glass of water? Walking all the way here from Nilson Middle School must be hard work for a kid—you know—a kid with your—um—weight and all.”
“What? I’m just trying to be nice. Poor kid’s probably half dead from heat exhaustion.” He looked at me. “I haven’t hurt your feelings, have I?”
I shook my head.
“See, he’s okay. He can take it. He’s a tough guy. You’re a tough guy, right?”
“He doesn’t say much. Can he talk?”
“Yes, he can talk,” Rita said. “He’s a poet.”
“A poet? Really? I love poetry! Recite a poem for me, Kirby.”
I shook my head, no.
“Okay, then, I’ll recite one—but wait a second, I’ve got to make it up.” Daniel looked skyward and stroked his chin. “All right, here it is:”
Lo, how his belly doth protrude!
Mayhaps he eateth too much food.
“What do you think?” Daniel said.
“That’s the worst poem I’ve ever heard,” Rita said.
“What did you say? It’s the best poem you’ve ever heard? Why thank you. Would you like to hear another?”
Rita took Daniel by the arm and started pulling him towards the house.“Don’t be a butthead,” she said. Daniel, laughing, pretended he couldn’t resist Rita’s efforts to drag him inside. Rita looked over her shoulder at me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Just ignore my brother. He’s a butthead.”
I was about halfway home when Daniel passed me on his bicycle. He turned around ten or fifteen feet in front of me and got off his bike and laid it down and waited for me in the middle of the sidewalk. When I tried to walk around him, he stepped in front of me.
“Rita said I had to apologize for joking around with you,” he said. “She thinks I hurt your feelings. Did I hurt your feelings?”
“That’s what I told her. I said you weren’t a pussy, but I guess she didn’t believe me. No hard feelings, right? We’re friends, right?”
“Sure,” I said.
He offered me his hand, but I didn’t reach for it.
Daniel left his hand out, and looked hurt. “I thought we were friends.”
So I shook his hand. He didn’t squeeze my hand so hard this time. He let go of my hand, then he slapped me across the face, hard. He watched for a moment, probably to see if I would cry. If I had been twelve, or maybe even thirteen, I would have, but I was fourteen, and my crying days were behind me.
“We’re going to be best buddies,” he said. He got on his bike and rode off.
At dinner that evening, my brother announced to the family that I had a girlfriend. He said she had drawn a picture and given it to me. My mother lit up like a Fourth of July sparkler.
“What was it a picture of?”
“A bee and a flower,” my brother said.
“A bee and a flower? Well.” My mother grinned. “She must really like you Kirby. What’s her name?”
“Rita Raven,” I mumbled.
My mother was delighted. “Rita Raven! Oh! I know her—Paula Raven’s daughter! She IS a cutie pie. Oh, good for you, Kirby. Can I see the picture she drew for you?”
I shook my head no.
“Oh, please? Just a quick look?”
“I don’t have it.”
“You don’t have it?”
“I gave it back to her.”
“You gave it back to her?” My mother slumped in her chair. “Oh, Kirby. Don’t tell me she drew a picture for you and you gave it back to her. The poor thing’s probably crushed. Allen?”
“What?” my father said.
“Why haven’t you talked to Kirby about how to treat girls?”
“I thought he’d figure it out for himself. I figured it out for myself, and I did okay.”
“You didn’t do okay, you got lucky. If my father hadn’t told me I couldn’t see you, I would have dropped you like a hot potato.”
“Baloney. Since when have you ever dropped a hot potato? There’s nothing you like better than a hot potato.”
“Don’t change the subject,” my mother said, blushing.
My father pointed his fork at me. “When a woman gives you something, be gracious about it. Whatever it is, it’s perfect and you love it and it’ll go great with your favorite shirt—you get what I’m saying?”
“I get it,” I said.
“But why would you give it back to her?” my mother said.
“I get it already,” I said. I wasn’t about to confess to having written Rita Raven a poem.
“Give the boy a break,” my father said. “I’m sure if she really likes him, she’ll forgive him.”
“I don’t know,” my mother said, biting her lip. “I still don’t understand why he would give it back to her.”
“Because he’s a dork,” my sister offered.
I got up from the dinner table and went to my room. I ignored all offers of reconciliation—even the ones that came with dessert. My brother came into our room a little while later—quietly, like he was hoping I was asleep and he could sneak in without waking me up. He deserved a good hard shoulder punch, but I didn’t feel like getting out of bed to deliver it.
I was rattled by what my mother had said. It had probably taken Rita days to do that drawing, and I spent fifteen minutes writing a crappy poem and then I gave it to her like it was just as good as what she had done. I wondered if Rita Raven might at that very moment be coming to the same conclusion I was—that I was the world’s biggest dork. But the next day after classes, she was waiting for me at the front steps, and she seemed happy to see me, and I walked her home again, and the world was a marvelous place—a place where even a dork had a chance at love.
The second time I walked Rita Raven home, I really didn’t think much about her brother Daniel. He didn’t come bounding out of the house this time when we reached the front walk, and I figured whatever it was he wanted out of me, he had gotten it. But on my way home from Rita’s house, he passed me on his bike again, got off a few feet in front of me, and waited for me in the middle of the sidewalk.
“You didn’t rat me out to Rita, did you—about what happened yesterday?”
I shook my head.
“I didn’t think so. She didn’t say anything about it to me, so I didn’t think you did. I have to admit, I’m impressed. I took you for a squealer—no offense—I mean, let’s face it, you look like a squealer.”
“I’m not a squealer,” I said.
“Maybe not,” he said, “but I’m pretty sure you’re a pussy . . .”
He slapped me across the face.
“. . . and I can’t have my sister going around with a pussy. I’m sure you understand—you seem like a smart guy.”
That’s how it went. Every day after school, I would walk Rita from the front steps of Nilson Middle School to the front steps of her house, giddy with love, and Daniel would catch up with me on my way home. The justification changed every time, but the punishment was always a hard slap across the face. I didn’t cry and I didn’t run away.
At home, my brother got sicker. His coughing got louder, more persistent and more grating every night. My mother and father were worried and snappy, and no one in the house was getting much sleep.
One day when I met Rita at the front steps after school, she took my hand and I felt like a ten-foot-tall pitcher of warm pancake syrup. I didn’t let go of her hand until we got to her front walk. As I watched her walk up the porch steps to her front door, I noticed something move behind a window on the second floor. The slap I got that day was extra brutal.
When I got home, my mother asked me to clean up the room I shared with my brother and not just my side, but because my brother was so sick, his side, too. That struck me as unfair, so I did a half-ass job and my mother yelled at me.
The next day, after I walked Rita home from school, I walked out to Water Tower Park. My plan was to even the score with my mother by waiting out there until late in the evening so she’d worry about me, but after sitting in a swing for a half hour or so—long enough to get bored and hungry—I decided it was a stupid idea. I headed for home down Spear Grass Road. I was amusing myself with a balancing act—walking on the curb and imagining it was a narrow ravine with a thousand foot drop on either side when I stepped on a piece of the curb near the end of the cast section that had cracked. It shifted under my foot and I lost my balance and sat down hard. I kicked at the loose chunk of cement and it broke off completely and rolled into the street. I stretched out my leg in front of me and turned my foot to the left and to the right. A broken ankle would certainly get the parental sympathy I craved, but since it didn’t hurt at all, I thought the chances of it being broken were pretty slim. That didn’t mean I couldn’t limp.
I was about to get up when I saw Daniel riding towards me on his bike. I couldn’t believe it. He must have been riding around looking for me the whole time. I had an insight into myself—perhaps the first real insight into my own inner workings I ever had. I hadn’t gone to Water Tower Park so my parents would worry about me, I had done it to avoid Daniel. I had run away—but not from home—and here was Daniel, and what he had always suspected and I had been refusing to acknowledge was as clear as day to both of us now. I was a pussy. When Daniel was done with me, he would report back to Rita. I didn’t think Rita was the kind of girl who would waste her time on a pussy, even if he did write poetry.
Daniel rode up to where I was sitting on the curb and started riding around in circles in front of me, popping wheelies. I could see the excitement in his eyes. I understood it, too. There’s something thrilling about revealing the fundamental truth of a person. It’s what draws people to psychology and detective novels.
And then he was lying in the street, making gurgling noises while blood ran out of his head. That chunk of cement I had kicked out of the curb was his undoing. The closest thing I had to a coherent thought at that moment was that Daniel Raven was going to die, and I was going to get blamed for it. I bolted—ran out into the street looking back over my shoulder. The guilty always think they are being pursued. I was very nearly the second casualty of the day. Mrs. Edgewise, a biology teacher at the high school, jumped out her car, and was about to chew me out for almost getting myself killed when she saw Daniel lying in the gutter tangled up in his bicycle, the blood from his head flowing conveniently into a nearby storm drain. His eyes were open and moving around, but he didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular. He made a sound like a belch.
“Oh, my God!” Mrs. Edgewise said, “help me get him into the car!”
So I helped Mrs. Edgewise get Daniel into the backseat of her car, and then we were on our way to Nilson Memorial Hospital. And when we got there she told the doctor and everyone else how I had run out in front of her car—risked my life—to get help for Daniel.
Daniel didn’t die, but he never really recovered, either. Anyway, his days of tormenting poets and pussies were over. As for me, I told anyone who asked—and there was no end to the asking—Mrs. Edgewise’s version of the story.
Nilson Middle School was small, but as long as you didn’t share any classes, it was big enough where you could avoid someone, if you put your mind to it. Rita was out of school for a few days after her brother’s accident, and when she came back, I put my mind to avoiding her. I didn’t think I’d be able to tell that lie to Rita Raven. Before her green eyes, it would shrivel up and die in my throat, and probably choke me to death. Even worse, she was sure to thank me for saving her brother’s life, and bemoan his tragic circumstance. Poet or not, I didn’t have the words to express myself on that subject. I might have to slap her across the face, just to let her know how I felt about it. The truth was, I didn’t know what I might do.
I saw the corners of straw wrappers sticking out from under the pencil holder in Mrs. Davidson’s algebra class, and I used my pencil to shove them underneath and out of sight. They’re probably still in there. Sometimes I would come around a corner of the hallway and see Rita standing by my locker. When that happened, I would turn around and wait in the boy’s restroom until after the tardy bell rang. I got a few tardies, but due to my status as town hero, I was let off easy. I found an empty classroom on the second floor of the math building I could duck into when the three-thirty bell rang. I would wait for a half hour and then run straight home—climbing over the fence on the west side of the school yard so I wouldn’t have to pass by the front steps, in case Rita was waiting there for me.
I felt that peculiar, painful lump that grows in your chest when you know you’re hurting someone you love. I was miserable through and through, and misery loves company—but not nearly as much as it loves finding someone to blame, and it occurred to me one day that the whole thing was Rita Raven’s fault. It was her idea that I should walk her home, and she was the one who told her brother I wrote poetry. She must have known how much fun her brother would have with that. And what if Daniel was testing my manhood not just on his sister’s behalf, but at her request? Maybe she was the one who was concerned about me being a pussy.
I found a square of stiff paper in my locker one morning, cut just the right size to fit through the ventilation slot. On one side was a drawing in map pencil. I guess you could say it was the sequel to the tea party depicted in the first drawing she had given me. The thistle was all alone at the tea table. Its leafy, mitten-like hands were folded in its lap, and its green head with the spiky purple hairdo was bent down, looking a little wilted. A milky teardrop had just left its cheek, destined to fall into an empty teacup.
On the back of the card, Rita Raven had written
Please write something
After classes that day, I waited in the empty room in the math building until the halls had cleared out, then I went to the front doors of the main building. Looking out through the front doors, I saw Rita sitting alone on the steps. I walked back through the empty halls. I tore the card in half and pushed the pieces through the ventilation slots in her locker.